The magic and mystery of our nighttime flights of fantasy

Dreams. They have mystified and captivated us throughout history. We spend almost six years of our lives—2,100 days—in the shadowy world of dreams. They have predicted events, started wars, and resolved major business and personal decisions. But, because of the deeply personal nature of dreaming, we know surprisingly few hard facts about their origin and meaning.

But the commonality of certain dreams, along with examination of the dreamers’ shared experiences, has brought about some very interesting and believable theories as to the meaning and impact of dreams on our everyday lives.

What we do know, for sure, is when we dream. When we fall asleep, our mental and metabolic condition progresses through four separate stages. During the fourth stage, known as delta, or REM sleep, our blood pressure, brain activity and heart rate increase significantly, and our voluntary muscles become paralyzed. This is when our dreams begin to unfold.

There is no doubt that our daily activities have an effect on our dreams. Whenever you suppress your feelings throughout the day, there’s a good chance it will show up in your dream. For example, if you wanted to express your anger toward someone, but chose not to do so, that suppressed anger may appear in your dreams in some symbolic form. The same is also reported to be true for traumatic experiences. (

I have a friend who is an entrepreneur and businessman. He has told me that on the eve of a particularly difficult negotiation or confrontation, he will often have clear and intense dreams during which he ‘rehearses’ what he will say and do in the actual meeting. He reports that when he wakes up, the stress and anxiety that could have affected his performance and judgment are gone. He is now ready to do it all over again—for real.

Many people share particular ‘dream themes’ in common. An interesting website,, suggests that the ‘top ten’ subjects, along with their popular interpretations, are (in no particular order):

1. being in an out-of-control car (is life maybe too hectic and out of control?),

2. falling (am I feeling ‘unsupported’ or worried?),

3. arriving late or unprepared for an exam (am I lacking confidence, or feeling unprepared for an upcoming event?),

4. being chased or attacked (is there a fearful aspect of my own personality?),

5. encountering a helpless baby or small animal (have I been attentive enough to myself?),

6. drowning, or experiencing huge waves (am I denying or feeling overwhelmed by my emotions?),

7. being injured or dismembered (is there a part of my life I’ve been neglecting or forgetting?),

8. being trapped (should I open myself up to new perspectives?),

9. being naked in public (do I feel insecure or ashamed about something?), and,

10. being stuck in slow motion, unable to move or make a sound (am I getting nowhere in some endeavor, and unable to voice my true feelings?).

Of course, these are all open to speculation. Each and every one of us processes our daily experiences a little differently, and these variations will be reflected in our own, very personal, dreams.

I like to refer to dreams as ‘day residue.’ The mind seizes onto a particular ‘trigger event’ encountered during our waking hours. It could be as small as a few words overheard in a restaurant, or as large as a life-changing experience. This trigger event, and the feelings it evokes, are both integrated into our personal framework of memories, symbols, anxieties and perceptions, and then ‘played back’—rich in imagery and symbolism. The feelings linked to the trigger are re-experienced as the dream progresses.

What could that trigger event have been? Sometimes, you can actually figure it out. Try this: The next time you remember a dream (immediately after waking up is the best time), apply what dream researchers call ‘associative logic.’ What this means is that the dream connects to our life (past or present) through a specific feeling. By matching that feeling to some event (the trigger) that took place when you were awake, you can get an idea of what initiated the dream. As you recollect the past day or so, the particular incident that ‘stirs up’ the same feeling—you’ll know it when you see it—is probably the one that triggered the dream.

Another interesting exercise that is gaining popularity is called ‘lucid dreaming.’ Have you ever been in a dream and suddenly realized that you are dreaming, making decisions and maybe even manipulating the outcome? Though many people wake up when this happens, some actually work to develop the skill of continuing the lucid dream without waking up. There are products on the market (I’m not endorsing ANYTHING) that supposedly help you develop this capability—from CDs with rhythmic sounds to blinking sleep masks that detect REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Though I am sure there is a lot of baloney out there, it might be fun to give it a try. Imagine a little, temporary world where ‘anything goes!’

After all this, it’s important to bear in mind that your dreams are not real. They are, indeed, intricate fabrications of your psyche, maybe even set off by reality, but they are still dreams. Enjoy analyzing them, take from them whatever seems valuable to you, but treat them for what they are: Strange, wonderful and psychologically healthy by-products of your unimaginably complex, yet always mindful, self.